Once again Colombia is trying to bring to an end its five-decade-long conflict and once again land reform is the stubborn, intractable issue that begs to be solved.
The Colombian government and the country’s biggest rebel group – The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC – have made land reform and agricultural development the first topic of the agenda of peace talks underway in Havana, Cuba.
That’s no surprise since the unequal distribution of land was a major factor in the creation of the FARC in 1964 and the situation in the South American country has only grown worse.
“Colombia is one of the countries in the world with the highest level of land concentration” said Arlene Tickner, Professor of Political Science at Los Andes University in Bogota and expert on the Colombian conflict.
“Historically speaking Colombia has been a country where elite groups in the countryside have concentrated land ownership but, with the drug traffic and then the armed conflict, concentration has actually increased and it switched hands,” Tickner said.
“First the drug traffickers bought up much of the most fertile land in the country and then, when the paramilitary emerged as a result of the armed conflict and to a large degree grew out of the drug traffickers, they too bought up much land.”
Different governments have tried to put land reform on the table but have been unable to resolve it.
A recent study by the United Nations Development Program on the state of rural Colombia found that today 52 per cent of rural property is in the hands of just 1.15 per cent of the population. And some six million hectares, an area bigger than the size of Switzerland, have been in one way or another stolen from the farmers that worked it for generations.
Almost four million Colombians have been driven off the land by the violence between the FARC, the Colombian military, and right wing paramilitary groups, which many analysts see connected to rich landowners and drug traffickers.
The Colombian government acknowledges that the land should be better distributed and put to better use. Today tens of millions of hectares of land are left unused by the mega owners.
‘Sowing seeds of peace’
According to the UN extensive ownership and irrational use of the land creates social and political control of the rural population, and offers space for drug corridors and other illegal activities.
The FARC have staked a claim to land reform and want the public to believe they still represent the poor farmers’ interests although they are also responsible for seizing land and forcibly recruiting peasants.
Recently the government passed a courageous land restitution law, hoping to return land to farmers displaced in the latest stages of the country’s violence. Already 26,650 Colombians have filed claims for stolen land. But it’s an uphill battle.
Many farmers lack means and documents to demonstrate they owned the land and the same groups that have stolen it don’t want to lose their privileges. So far some 45 land reform organizers have been killed and many more have been threatened by successors of the former paramilitary groups.
However difficult to implement, this is an important first step. The rest is being discussed in the peace talks in Cuba. The FARC are asking for systematic land reform while the government is hoping to develop the poor agricultural regions of the country without radically changing the ownership structure.
A rural development bill is being discussed by the Colombian government and it has been introduced before the talks started. The bill falls way short of the FARC demands.
The forum will be held December 17-19 in Bogota. Up to 1,200 delegates are expected to participate, representing many groups of Colombia’s civil society.
Their proposals will then reach the negotiating table.
However difficult land reform might be, it is the key to resolving the conflict. In the words of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, the necessary step “to go sowing the seeds of peace”.